“Where would we be without the courthouse?” asked Donna Street. “It’s the heart of Trenton.” But she was quick to add that Dade’s ticker is in need of some serious debrillation. “It’s going kind of slow,” she admitted. Ms. Street, the retired former Dade educator who herself tends to be at the heart of most delvings into matters historical in the county, was talking about the challenges faced by Dade’s new Historic Preservation Commission, formed expressly to deal with the job of bringing the old courthouse back into some useful kind of life.
Besides Ms. Street, members of the new commission are retired Dade Superior Court Clerk Sarah Moore, Audrey Clark, Rex Blevins and Dade County Commission Executive Chairman Ted Rumley. They meet twice a month to deal with the problems of the decaying structure, which by all accounts are legion. Like a temple to some tutelary deity of yore, Dade’s old brick courthouse dominates the tiny downtown area of the county seat from a promontory in the dead center of the Trenton town square, with Highway 11 traffic routed around it as if to enable pilgrims to “weave a circle ‘round it thrice,” as Coleridge would have it; or in any case to educate locals as to the mysterious ways of the roundabout currently threatened by the Georgia Department of Transportation for the intersection of 11 with Highway 136. And also like many temples to bygone worshipees, Dade’s courthouse is now an abandoned hulk. It was built in 1926, earlier models having burned in 1853 and 1863. County leaders may well have wished this one would go that route, too, as it has sat moldering conspicuously in the middle of town since the county legal offices moved into a modern new building in 2010. District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff said that some detractors really have complained the old building should be torn down. But County Executive Ted Rumley says that that’s not feasible, and anyway that funds from more than one past SPLOST (special-purpose local option sales tax) were allocated specifically to revamp the courthouse. Besides, said Rumley, though some citizens carp about any expenditure of public funds at all, he hasn’t heard any complaints about Dade’s current work on the courthouse. So far, that work has centered around getting an elevator installed to make the place handicapped-accessible, now a legal requirement for public buildings. Previously, though the second floor housed the chief courtroom, it was accessed via a quaint period staircase. The stairs led to another indispensable feature, public restrooms. Rumley says the remodeled courthouse will contain that convenience on the first floor. Rumley said the elevator—now ready for its maiden voyage between the floors—cost the county between $38,000 and $40,000. As for the ensuing revamp, he said Dade will keep costs low by doing the work in-house and by using prison trusty labor as much as possible. He also said one purpose of the historic preservation group was to qualify the county to apply for certain grants. Donna Street wouldn’t venture a guess as to how much the whole remodeling job will cost—“I don’t have a clue”—but said her committee plans to launch a major capital-funds collections campaign, probably in July. She said the courthouse’s major problems include its roof, which was leaking when it was vacated over five years ago and has not self-healed since then, and its electrical system. “That building probably needs to be totally rewired,” she said. “A new transformer may be in the offing.” Ms. Street said Georgia Power has been looking into the old building’s state of health, as has Trenton Telephone, which owns the telephone pole that tilts drunkenly at the courthouse’s southwest corner. Ted Rumley said the courthouse’s bricks may also require some help. Though sealed, he said, they absorb moisture when it rains, complicating the leak problem. Besides the structural and utility work, both the county executive and Ms. Street mentioned the daunting task of going through the courthouse’s collection of documents, records, cabinets, bookshelves and sheer stuff, some of which must be sorted and preserved as history and some of which may be disposed of or sold at online auction. Rumley says the courthouse should be ready for occupancy by midsummer. Ms. Street says that’s a little optimistic.” “I would say Christmas,” she said. “We might be able to have a Christmas event in there.” Next question: Occupancy by whom? Well, the Dade County Historical Society, for one, both sources agreed. Ms. Street said she’d like to see a Dade welcome center in the courthouse, and Rumley says the county chamber of commerce may consider moving there from its current home in the old Trenton train depot. Rumley said a couple of attorneys had also expressed interest in renting office space in the building. Not, he clarified, the couple of attorneys Dade already has, but out-of-towners who regularly come into the county to plead cases. “Now, when they’re here for court, they’re sort of working out of their cars,” he said. If fixing up the courthouse seems like a lot of trouble, Donna Street says it’s what we’ve got. Trenton, she points out, is not one of those Southern towns that has a lot of gracious old mansions or stately public buildings. Anyway, she said, the Georgia Department Tourism in its recommendations to Dade—available for public view in the history room at the Dade County Public Library—specifically told the county to spruce itself up, painting facades and pressure-washing sidewalks to attract the tourist dollar. Dade’s courthouse initiative and Trenton’s citywide cleanup, planned for April 2, are both efforts to take that advice. “These are things that are directly out of that book,” she said.